1668 Long-distance romance, 1891
Until We Meet Again: Scouting for the CPR’s Crowsnest Line, 1891
by Jan Krijff (translator) and Karen Green (research)
Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing, 2023
$24.95 / 9781989467466
Reviewed by Walter Volovsek
I was quite delighted to receive this book to review, as it connects by various tangents to my previous work in constructing walking trails in the Castlegar area.
The book consists of letters written by members of the Boissevain Family, with particular focus on Karel Boissevain and his sister Heleen. Living in Amsterdam in 1891, Karel finds his asthma an overwhelming impediment, and he is advised by his doctor to emigrate to the drier and crisper atmosphere of western Canada, then accessible only by the newly-completed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). To do so, Karel has to temporarily separate from his fiancée Willemina (Wil) de Vos, but he is accompanied by Heleen, who figures prominently in these letters.
Children of a prosperous shipowner – and related to the Dutch CPR financier after whom Boissevain, Manitoba was named in 1885 – Karel and Heleen relocate to the prairie lands east of the Crowsnest Pass, through which CPR surveyors are advancing to select the best routing for the railway. Karel’s work with the engineering contingent is initially not very demanding: the production of surveying stakes. With time he graduates to learning the elements of surveying: the measurements of angles (for trigonometric determination of distance) and relative heights of the ground. Having obtained the measurements during the day, the engineers return to camp by dusk, have supper, and then continue with their calculations and drafting in their tents by lamplight.
What makes this story particularly intriguing for me is that one of my heroes exerts his powerful influence on Karel’s advancement. This was William Cornelius Van Horne, who became General Manager and later, President of the CPR, as it was being pushed westward towards the Rockies.
During an inspection trip to look over the Columbia and Kootenay Railway, which was being built between Sproat’s Landing (Castlegar) and Nelson in 1891, Van Horne uttered the famous expression for that struggling line: “A Railroad from Nowhere to Nowhere.” That presented me with a winner of a title for my first interpretive panel that I developed for Waldie Island Trail (see image at foot of review — Ed). Other panels followed, graciously supported by corporate sponsors, and Waldie Island Trail became the first of several Trails in Time. The concept behind that nomenclature was to have our walking trails serve dual functions: to provide relaxing physical exercise and to provide conduits into the past.
Van Horne, according to Karel, is:
President, CPR, one of the most powerful men in the country. An intellectual colossus, the stature of Mr. Hooft Graafland Dedel [a lawyer], with a bit more girth. Says very little and does more and, when he does speak, it is to the point. A large head with piercing steel-grey eyes. He will help me for sure…. He will have a small bit of his powerful brain ponder upon it; this afternoon I will hear about my fate.
Heleen occasionally illuminates the somewhat dry technical accounting of progress by the surveyors with her verbal sketches of beauty:
An evening of beauty! My little self is keeping warm, almost unnoticeable in a bunch of buffalo hides and coyote pelts, as we move forward [in a wagon] at a fast pace through the soft, cracking snow. The proud, rugged, glittering snowy mountains weaken slowly in the falling shadow, while the world glows behind it in changing colours. And, in front of me, the wide softly rolling plain, so still, so pure, as if with its own light, gives a silver-copper glow to the silent, clear, softly darkening hill. And there, the moon, not shining, but as a lit face. Oh, I cannot describe the wide, pure, soulful stillness that changes slightly everywhere without movement; the young, beautiful earth so close to the faraway, gentle heaven!
She would experience travel by train, horseback and stagecoach, including a harrowing ordeal of being thrown out of an out-of-control wagon.
The letters provide intimate glimpses into the mental struggles of lovers, at times separated by the vast distance between the Netherlands and the southern Rockies. As we discover in one of the last letters, Karel’s future is by no means assured. As his father comments:
I agree that by initially participating with the survey crew as a volunteer (as was the case), there is no career for Karel to be expected. We must appreciate that he had the opportunity to test the strength of his physique and morale, but that is not where his future lies. The benevolence of the bigwigs does not go further that to offer an opportunity to put one’s foot in the stirrup.
Karel’s sister Heleen confesses to Wim, back in Holland:
But Karel has become so different during these months that I have faith in him again, more so than ever before. You have also granted me a peek into the depths of your devotion and love: and even your own shattering grief will not prevent you from suffering under his remorse and struggle. I do not know what he has written to you, but Papa will tell you for sure how much could be ascribed to his physical situation, his slack life in Indonesia and on board, and where Karel perhaps blamed himself too harshly. In that, you will recognize him — in his drive to be true.
Thanks to editors Jan Krijff and Karen Green and to Granville Island Publishing, Until We Meet Again is a treasure chest with many hidden jewels awaiting the patient reader: the story of a long-distance romance in the age of postage stamps and letters, of a cooperative sibling partnership beyond the outer edge of Canadian settlement, and of the detailed survey work required in the construction of the CPR’s subsidiary, the Columbia and Kootenay Railway.
After managing the biology labs at Selkirk College for 24 years, Walter O. Volovsek retired to a second (voluntary) career: developing walking and ski touring trails for the Castlegar community. Most of these were developed to present to the user a pathway into the past by means of interpretive signage in the field, and related essays on his website. This endeavour led to connections with descendants of important Castlegar pioneers, such as Albert McCleary and Edward Mahon. In 2012 Walter self-published his biography of Castlegar founder Edward Mahon, The Green Necklace: The Vision Quest of Edward Mahon (Otmar Publishing, 2012). In addition to his plans for Castlegar, Mahon was also known for his legacy of parks and greenways in North Vancouver. Walter has also written a book on his trail-building efforts, Trails in Time: Reflections (Otmar, 2012), and has been commissioned to develop signs on local history in key locations, including Castlegar Millennium Park, Castlegar Spirit Square, and Brilliant Bridge Regional Park. Editor’s note: Walter Volovsek has recently reviewed books by Michael Palin, Nancy Anderson, Michael Haynes, Derek Hayes, Paul Watson, and Owen Beattie & John Geiger for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster